Most Toxic Air In America—Big Deal (Yawn)


New York and California have the most toxic air pollution in America according to the EPA. But how bad is it really? Not so bad, according to Joel Schwartz, writing over at TCSDaily. According to Schwartz, the EPA calculates that "breathing 1999 pollution levels over a lifetime gives New York State residents an average cancer risk of 68 per million people. For Californians the risk is 66 per million, and the national average is 42 per million." Sounds terrible, right?

Not so fast, says Schwartz. He points out:

About one-third of all Americans–330,000 per million–will develop cancer sometime during their lifetimes. On a nationwide basis, EPA's estimates therefore imply that only one of every 2,400 cancers (0.042%) is caused by air pollution. While it would be wonderful if no one contracted cancer for any reason, it is clear that reducing air pollution will do virtually nothing to reduce the total burden of this terrible disease.

Of course, how you look at air pollution cancer risks depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty. Even at one of every 2,400 cancers, air pollution would still be responsible for more than 500 cancers per year nationwide. We would all choose to avoid these cancers if we could, and in a world of infinite resources we would. But even if we could eliminate all cancer-causing air pollutants for the unlikely sum of just $10 billion per year, that would still amount to a cost of $20 million per cancer case avoided. At that price, reducing air pollution would have to rank pretty low on any list of priorities for cancer prevention.

Of course, cancer's not the only thing. Air pollution looks ugly and exacerbates (but does not cause) asthma.

Whole thing here.

Disclosure: I enjoy talking with Joel Schwartz (we sat next to one other at a policy dinner last month). I assume that I must own some minor amount of stock in some companies or other that cause some kind of air pollution, but I can't think of them off the top of my head and I'm not going to look them up now.